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Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee - 14/02/2012 - Estimates - INFRASTRUCTURE AND TRANSPORT PORTFOLIO - Civil Aviation Safety Authority

Civil Aviation Safety Authority

Senator GALLACHER: In the interests of time I have four questions. I am happy if they are taken on notice and you supply the answers in a written form. The Qantas CEO has given evidence to a former parliamentary committee in relation to the Qantas fleet being 11.2 years old. Clearly, there are 34 out of 146 aircraft in their fleet, being 737s, 767s and 747s, which are over 20 years old. I am familiar with the number of landings, take-offs and pressurisations in relation to the life of aircraft. My question to CASA is: do you have any safety concerns about the age of the Qantas fleet on the second or third busiest route in the world, Brisbane-Sydney-Melbourne?

Mr McCormick : No, we do not.

Senator GALLACHER: Do you have a policy on aircraft age, or do you leave it to the marketplace or the operators?

Mr McCormick : We have an aircraft policy which is continuing to be developed for ageing aircraft. It is primarily targeted at the general aviation market at the moment, but we do monitor the age of aircraft as they come up to their designed life.

Senator GALLACHER: What is the designed life for a wide-bodied aircraft? Is it 27 years?

Mr McCormick : I will take that on notice. It relates to cycles and hours of flying rather than actual years of age.

Senator GALLACHER: That goes back to my earlier point. But there is no policy on aircraft age for wide-bodied aircraft in Australia. You do not monitor that?

Mr McCormick : As far as a policy mandating a replacement, no, we do not have a policy.

Senator GALLACHER: Does CASA keep a log of reportable incidents or maintenance failures?

Mr McCormick : Yes, we do.

Senator GALLACHER: How do Qantas, Virgin and Jetstar compare on that log, allowing for the differing fleet sizes and ages?

Mr McCormick : I would have to take a comparison on notice, but I can give you the figures for Qantas if you like.

Senator GALLACHER: Thank you.

Mr McCormick : The basic issue is that we have what is called service difficulty reports. Service difficulty reports mean for any major maintenance difficulties that they encounter an airline or anybody else subject to that has to report that defect within 48 hours. In the case of Qantas, their service difficulty reports for October to December 2011 numbered 92.

Senator GALLACHER: Do you have the stats for Jetstar or Virgin?

Mr McCormick : Not as a comparison. We will take that on notice.

Senator HEFFERNAN: At Brisbane airport on 19 October 2011 a Virgin pilot suffered serious injuries when the force of the engines of a taxiing plane blew him over the rear stairs of a 737. What was the result of the investigation undertaken regarding this incident?

Mr McCormick : I think that would be a question for the ATSB.

Senator HEFFERNAN: If that is your judgment, righto. These may all be then. What about the Jetstar pilots who were down to 51 metres short on the final, well short of the airport?

Mr McCormick : The missed approach into Melbourne?

Senator HEFFERNAN: Yes.

Mr McCormick : There is an ATSB investigation on that. I do not know what the status of that report is. I do not have it in front of me.

Senator HEFFERNAN: It is thought that both pilots believed the other was monitoring the altitude. Does CASA recognise this as a major concern?

Mr McCormick : CASA monitors approved procedures. Not only do we look at their manuals, but we also do flight inspections on board the aircraft to see how the crew cooperate. We also observe simulated sessions where the crew are trained and relicensed. If we see deficiencies, we do broader—

Senator HEFFERNAN: What contingencies do you put in place to ensure such an elementary mistake—which is fairly elementary—is not made by other pilots in the future? Were they just relying on the autopilot? Do you know what—

Mr McCormick : Again, I do not think it is appropriate for me to speculate on the outcome.

Senator HEFFERNAN: Okay, it is still underway?

Mr McCormick : To my knowledge, yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN: Is the A380 matter, the cracked wings, a matter for you?

Mr McCormick : Yes, it is.

Senator HEFFERNAN: Is there a known risk of cracks in A380s internationally? If so, which airlines experience these cracks and what was the subsequent treatment?

Mr McCormick : There are two types of cracking described by the European Aviation Safety Agency. They are generally defined as type 1 and type 2. Type 1 cracks originate from holes that attach the ribbed feet to the wingskins, and that is a bracket at the end of the wing rib basically holding the covering of the wing on board. Those type 1 cracks were discovered in September 2011 on the Qantas A380 QFA, which is under repair in Singapore following the uncontained engine failure last year. EASA advised CASA on 6 January 2012 of the existence of type 1 cracks and provided an update on work by Airbus and EASA. CASA has requested additional information from EASA.

Type 2 cracks though occur in the vertical webs of the feet originating from the ribbed feet. That was initially reported after an inspection of an Emirates Airlines A380. It appeared to be fatigue related and thus they will be flight cycle dependent, depending on how many cycles the aircraft has done. More significant type 1 cracks may develop in other aircraft after a period of time in service.

Senator HEFFERNAN: According to my information of February, the Qantas A380 fleet was grounded after cracks were found in the wings of the planes. Current regulatory requirements in the EU require all A380s to be checked after 1,300 flights, yet no Qantas planes have achieved that many hours yet; have they?

Mr McCormick : I do not know whether any aircraft has achieved that yet, but the Qantas fleet in total will not achieve a 1,300 flight cycle until the end of February this year.

Senator HEFFERNAN: Was a check on the wing scheduled for the future? What time distance was this schedule for? Was there a forward plan?

Mr McCormick : For repairs or inspections?

Senator HEFFERNAN: Yes.

Mr McCormick : The inspections come with the air worthiness directive from EASA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, and we incorporate any ADs that they—

Senator HEFFERNAN: Is there a time and distance requirement in that for the inspections?

Mr McCormick : If I could—

Senator HEFFERNAN: You can take that on notice if you like.

Mr McCormick : I think we will take it on notice, yes.

Senator HEFFERNAN: The current EU is 1,300 flights. Given these cracks occurred well before this limit, does the agency see a need to review the limits imposed in Australia? If so—you may have to take this on notice—what would the new limit be? If not, why not? If not, could you provide the cost-benefit analysis decision? Who made the decision, the date on which it was made and who were the experts who were consulted?

Mr McCormick : I think it is fair to say that we are continuing to seek information from EASA and Airbus Industries, the manufacturer of the aircraft. Our experience has been that sometimes information is a little bit hard to come by, or is a bit slow in forthcoming, so we have requested more information. The investigation is ongoing and then we will review any directives that come out of EASA for applicability in Australia and whether it is appropriate for the Australian fleet. We do not have the ability to gather the fleet data.

Senator HEFFERNAN: We would be interested to be kept updated and I am sure the Australian public would, too. The local one, a Qantas plane on 3 February was forced to return to Canberra after it suffered an engine failure. I have to say it would have been quite an exciting thing to look out the window and see the engine stopped. Has there been a report into this incident? What have the findings been so far? Obviously, if it is ongoing, these questions would be premature. When will the report be made public?

Mr McCormick : Again, that is a question for the ATSB. But as to your earlier comments, Mr Mrdak was on that flight so he could perhaps enlighten you on what it is like to look out the window at the propeller.

CHAIR: Senator Heffernan, can you put the rest on notice, please?

Senator EGGLESTON: I would like to ask a question about a company called Polar Aviation based in Port Hedland. Are you aware of that company?

Mr McCormick : Yes, I am.

Senator EGGLESTON: I wish to make some inquiries about the cost of CASA's various legal cases against Polar Aviation. Polar Aviation is a small Port Hedland aviation company which I understand has been in dispute with CASA since 2004. This has led to a series of legal actions beginning with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and then the Federal Court, all of which Polar Aviation has won and all of which cases have been appealed by CASA. I understand that now, eight years later, CASA is still appealing the decisions made about Polar Aviation. In fact, the managing director of Polar Aviation has said to me in a letter describing this process:

What followed was a relentless vendetta to close the company down. The court action that followed was defended in the AAT and the Federal Court and Polar Aviation has won on all occasions.

This case is now eight years old, as I said. All this man, Clark Butson, says he wants to do is:

… tell my story to a judge. All CASA wants to do is avoid that process at any cost. This case has real relevance and should be tested in a court. If CASA has nothing to fear why will they not bring it on?

What bothers me is that this is a small company. CASA represents the Commonwealth government and has used the financial resources of the Commonwealth government to try to shut down this very successful and respected airline in the Pilbara. I would like to have—and I ask for it to be provided on notice—a detailed summary of the costs incurred by CASA in the various legal actions against Polar Aviation.

Mr McCormick : I will ask the chief legal officer to actually give you some background. It is fair to say that Mr Butson is a bit delusional—

Senator EGGLESTON: I beg your pardon?

Mr McCormick : He is a bit delusional if that is what he thinks the outcome of the court cases has been so far.

Senator EGGLESTON: He has won them all so far. If that is a delusion, then perhaps we should go to the judges.

Mr McCormick : I have asked the chief legal officer, Mr Adam Anastasi, to fill you in.

Mr Anastasi : By way of background it is correct that in 2005 CASA cancelled Mr Butson's chief pilot approval and the air operator's certificate of Polar Aviation. There was a subsequent hearing of the AAT. In the course of that hearing the matters were resolved by consent between the parties and that resulted in the decision to cancel Mr Butson's chief pilot approval being affirmed and the decision to cancel Polar Aviation's air operator's certificate being set aside.

Subsequent to that, Polar Aviation and Mr Butson commenced legal proceedings against CASA and various of its officers in the Federal Court of Australia; that is, his action against CASA. In that regard, on 30 September 2011, the Federal Court dismissed his statement of claim in its entirety. Mr Butson and Polar Aviation have now appealed that judgment to the Full Court of the Federal Court of Australia and, as I said, that is his action against CASA. It is a claim for damages against CASA. The court has dismissed his claim—so I will stop there.

CASA can provide information concerning its legal costs in the tribunal proceedings. The current Federal Court litigation is one in which Comcover, as our insurer, has instructed external lawyers to represent CASA and its officer, so CASA is not paying legal fees in that regard. That is a matter for Comcover as to whom they instruct and on what basis. But in that regard, at least at this point in time, Polar Aviation has been ordered to pay CASA's legal costs.

Senator EGGLESTON: Is it not the case that Polar Aviation’s operating licences were restored and the case against you was for damages, for loss of income and other factors? I am not so much interested in the legal issues, which of course at the moment are sub judice; I am very interested in the total cost of the legal cases which CASA has brought against this small company over the last eight years.

Mr Anastasi : CASA has brought no action against those persons or the company. On odd occasions it has been either Polar Aviation and Mr Butson’s applications either to the tribunal or to the Federal Court. Obviously, when a party is aggrieved with an administrative decision of the authority they can seek review in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. As I said, I am happy on notice to give you information about our legal costs in the tribunal proceedings. But in terms of the Federal Court proceedings, again commenced by those parties against CASA, we are not privy to Comcover’s legal expenditure.

Senator EGGLESTON: Your story is not quite what I have heard. I think you are resisting the damages claim. I would seek leave to table this letter.

CHAIR: Do you have further questions on those?

Senator EGGLESTON: No, I will not. I may put further questions on notice.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Senator EGGLESTON: I will table the letter.

Senator XENOPHON: On 26 May and at the more recent estimates I raised issues of the question of disclosure of chairman’s lounge membership for CASA personnel—CASA board members. I think CASA was looking at formulating a policy on that in relation to disclosure. I do not want to belabour the point but it has been dealt with now—has it? Is there a decision as to whether chairman’s lounge membership, which is by invitation only for Qantas, is something that is a declarable interest or not? You were seeking legal advice on that.

Mr McCormick : Yes, I think we answered that on notice last time.

Senator XENOPHON: I apologise for that. If it has been answered on notice, I will not belabour the point.

Mr McCormick : It is question No. 120.

Senator XENOPHON: The issue of fatigue management systems has been raised in terms of implementing fatigue management standards. When are they likely to be fully implemented?

Mr McCormick : I am aware of the committee’s deliberations on fatigue management standards at recent hearings. We are undertaking a workshop at the moment which has met twice since August 2011—which involves the industry, of course—developing the fatigue risk management guidelines and updates to CAO48 for the technical crew. At the completion of that work we will be conducting the development of the fatigue risk management rules or guidelines for cabin crew. I realise that the committee made a recommendation that we do the cabin crew first, but I think as I have told this committee at various other hearings we will do the technical crew first—

Senator XENOPHON: I understand that. In terms of the time line, what are we looking at before they are finalised?

Mr McCormick : I do not have an actual time line available. I will take that on notice and get back to you.

Senator XENOPHON: Would it be six months, 12 months—

Mr McCormick : No, it will be this year.

Senator XENOPHON: Has CASA studied any of the reported cases of aerotoxic syndrome—that is, breathing contaminated cabin air?

Mr McCormick : Yes, there is a report. There was a specialist, expert committee that has been meeting for some years. I think it might even go back to 2008. That report has been produced.

Senator XENOPHON: On notice, do these differ from domestic or international flights as to how these standards are enforced and are regular tests carried out? You may answer quickly now or on notice.

Mr McCormick : There was the expert panel on air quality, EPAAQ report. There was also a study done in the United Kingdom. The study in the United Kingdom could not find any link between gases in the aircraft and human disease. The report is quite lengthy. The recommendations are quite lengthy. Some of the recommendations could be quite difficult to implement. That report has been published—

Senator XENOPHON: If you could provide some further information on notice, that would be useful.

Mr McCormick : If you give us a specific question, certainly, yes.

Senator XENOPHON: Are any regular tests carried out of purity of air in aircraft? Are standards enforced? Is there a difference of standards between domestic or international flights?

Is the issue of any legal or policy distinctions between an international flight sector and a domestic flight sector something that is within your purview, or is that more a matter for Customs or Immigration?

Mr McCormick : In relation to air quality now?

Senator XENOPHON: No, going to tagged international flights.

Mr McCormick : Tagged international flights?

Senator XENOPHON: Yes. Does CASA have a role with that?

Mr McCormick : We have a role as to the fatigue side of it with the crew that are involved in those tagged flights, if that is what you mean. And the actual tags go to traffic rights and—

Senator XENOPHON: That is fine. If I could put that to Mr Mrdak. In relation to the Fair Work Ombudsman investigation which I think was triggered as a result of the ABC Lateline story last July, I think—the middle of last year—has CASA been kept apprised of that because allegations were made in respect of fatigue management for foreign based flight crew?

Mr McCormick : We continue to investigate fatigue issues for foreign based cabin crew.

Senator XENOPHON: Has there been any level of information exchange or cooperation with the Fair Work Ombudsman’s office in relation to their investigation about foreign based flight crew and their duties and hours?

Mr McCormick : I will take it on notice but, generally speaking, we are looking at the Civil Aviation Act and how it is applied.

Senator XENOPHON: Mr Mrdak, is there a legal or policy distinction between an international flight sector and a domestic flight sector? The issue that has been raised is that you have foreign based cabin crew that fly on a tagged international flight. It is a domestic flight but it is tagged as an international flight. They are often paid—and I have modified my language after Mr Buchanan’s evidence at this committee—about a third of what an Australian based flight crew would be paid. Do you have any policy criteria to determine that this is a genuine international or domestic flight when the information I have been given is that on some of those flights the overwhelming majority of passengers are domestic passengers and they leave from a domestic terminal and arrive at a domestic terminal?

Mr Mrdak : We certainly closely examine the operation of the aircraft as to whether they meet traffic rights available under various bilateral agreements. Let me take that on notice, if I may. If there is a further element we apply I will come back to you.

Senator XENOPHON: I should declare that I am asking this for self-interest but probably also the self-interest of some of my colleagues about full-body scanners. I always dealt with the Office of Transport Security, but this relates to the health effects of it. Europe has banned airport scanners over cancer fears. They are still investigating that. As someone who I think caught 150 flights last year, like most of my colleagues, can you tell me whether there has been a health assessment and a monitoring of the EU’s approach to body scanners, whereas I understand that they are saying, ‘Not yet, until we are satisfied that there are not any adverse health effects’?

Mr Mrdak : The European position deals with some existing technology, not the technology which is being introduced into Australia, which is the millimetre wave technology and, yes, there have been health assessments done. We are happy to provide you with some details on that in relation to it.

Senator XENOPHON: On notice, could you provide those? I think it is an issue of some concern—

Mr Mrdak : Certainly.

Senator XENOPHON: Could you distinguish it between Europe’s body scanners and what is proposed here—

Mr Mrdak : Europe is very much focused on the technology which has been in place to this point. The technology which we are proposing to introduce, which is millimetre wave, does not raise those similar concerns.

Senator XENOPHON: It is different in terms of the exposure that you get now. There are only metal scanners at the moment—is that correct?

Mr Mrdak : We only have the metal detectors technology effectively. The intention is to introduce the body scanners. The intention is to introduce the body scanners to our international gateways from 1 July. That will be millimetre wave technology—

Senator XENOPHON: I have heard those who work as flight crew express some concerns to me, so if you could provide details of the health reports and any other papers relating to this—

Mr Mrdak : We have done work in that area in the lead-up to that. And after trials last year as well, so we will give you some information on that.

Senator XENOPHON: Thank you.

CHAIR: I notice your questioning to Mr McCormick in terms of membership of a Qantas lounge—

Senator XENOPHON: Chairman’s lounge.

CHAIR: I just hope that nobody listening would think that Mr McCormick’s integrity is on the line here as the director of aviation and safety because there could be perceived to be some favouritism of Qantas. I hope that is not the case.

Senator XENOPHON: Could I make that clear—

CHAIR: He is big enough and ugly enough to look after himself. You do not get a head like that from backing away from a blue.

Senator XENOPHON: Can I make that clear. That line of questioning arose from previous lines of questioning about what is a declarable interest in the same way that it is a declarable interest for members of parliament, and that was made very clear. There is no impugning of integrity. It is just an issue of: do you declare it because it is an invitation only lounge.

CHAIR: For that then I will retract my—

Senator XENOPHON: No, we were clarifying it.

CHAIR: Mr McCormick could probably have a piece of me when we leave.

Senator FAWCETT: Could you describe the nature of CASA’s contribution to the National Airports Safeguarding Advisory Group?

Mr McCormick : I will ask Mr Cromarty to reply to that.

Mr Cromarty : I am the CASA representative on the NASAG. The nature of my contribution is to provide regulatory advice to the group.

Senator FAWCETT: That is not particularly informative. With the current policy and regulation, the only time public safety comes into account at the moment in Queensland is with their public safety areas. Almost everything else pertains to noise. Given that CASA is the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, are you advising the group about the relative safety record of the different spheres of aviation? For example, FAR’s 25 transport category, versus 23, versus experimental such that they make deliberations about the level of developments and encroachment on airports—right through to regional airports. That group has a good understanding of the increased risk profile that community developments close to an airport face where you have low-time pilots with FAR 23, or lower, category aircraft operating.

Mr Cromarty : The regulation of developments near airports is a matter for the local councils and the state governments. CASA has no powers over those type of developments.

Senator FAWCETT: I am not asking if you have powers. This is a consultative group. It is an advisory group bringing together the different levels of government to get a comprehensive set of standards, or a framework, around airport approvals. It is quite clear in the white paper and in general experience that local government do not have expertise in aviation matters, particularly around safety. That is why CASA is involved. If CASA is not providing that input as to the relative safety of things like the James Reason model, and the fact if you remove different layers of protection you are actually increasing the risk, who is supposed to provide that kind of input to the process?

Mr Cromarty : We do provide that type of information to the group. The group is predominantly planning specialists and the group is producing advisory material for the benefit of the planning authorities and the state regulators so that they will be aware of such issues as you describe. That document has been released once for consultation and, as I understand it, is about to be released again. All I can tell you is that we have given our input where we can.

Senator FAWCETT: Which leads me back to my original question. Could you describe the nature of that input and the kinds of issues that you have been raising with people representing local or state planning authorities so that they understand the aviation side of the safety equation as opposed to just the planning around noise and things like that?

Mr McCormick : I think you will appreciate that the demarcation lines between state planning and perhaps planning done at a federal level is a very complex question. Our general input into all these matters when it comes to construction is whether they impinge on the obstacle clearance slopes or obstacle clearance planes and what the impact of that development will be. As to the actual planning approval and where the process goes apart from our regulatory input to that is not in our purview.

Senator FAWCETT: I understand that is the current system. I understand those are the current constraints. I also understand that the intent of the white paper and this group that has been set up is to develop a new framework, a new understanding between the levels of government such that there can be some translation of knowledge and expertise that will inform planning requirements. Do you think it is acceptable in the nature of the intent of this group for CASA and other departments to just sit back and go, ‘It has always been thus and that is not our responsibility’, or do you think you actually have an obligation to put forth the aviation safety case into the development of this new framework?

Mr McCormick : It is fair to say that CASA put forward a safety case and the safety issues by the strongest means possible whenever those issues arise. But we are not leading that development, nor are we leading that work. But we do not allow safety issues to go unrecognised, or unhighlighted, when they arise.

Senator XENOPHON: I might have a second round, not in a boxing or wrestling sense.

CHAIR: He just sorted me out and threatened me with everything so I had better give him a chance to get back in the good books.

Senator XENOPHON: You will withdraw that, won’t you, Chair, because we know you are joking?

CHAIR: Okay.

Senator XENOPHON: Is that an okay that you have withdrawn that?

CHAIR: What we are talking about.

Senator XENOPHON: The Hansard says—I am not threatening him, just for the record. It is impossible. In relation to safety issues, if a cabin crew member or staff member of an airline has raised safety concerns, whether it be fatigue or other relates issues, and they feel that there has been retribution in relation to their conduct, whether it is directly by airline management or through a labour hire company, is that something that CASA would want to know about?

Mr McCormick : Yes.

Senator XENOPHON: Because the issue that has been put to me relates to issues of fatigue where people have made complaints about fatigue and through a labour hire company the allegation is they were told, ‘Well, do you really want your contract renewed? We do not want to hear about these things’, because that sort of behaviour will not bode well. If they are overseas based flight crew and they are no longer working for this airline, would CASA be interested in taking a statement from them? It is within your jurisdictional responsibilities.

Mr McCormick : That is the important point, the last part, that it is within our jurisdictional responsibilities. We have a head of power and obviously all risk comes under that, particularly the Civil Aviation Act; if we do not then a lot of workplace relations of course will fall to the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations—

Senator XENOPHON: Even though they are overseas based crew, if it is an aircraft that is flying within Australia, is that enough to trigger your jurisdictional responsibilities or your mandate?

Mr McCormick : Employment conditions, as far as they relate to pay and conditions—there is a line there where I have no authority to go—

Senator XENOPHON: No, not pay and conditions. But if they are saying, ‘We are concerned about fatigue because we do not think we can safely operate the aircraft in the event of an incident’, that would fall within the authority’s—

Mr McCormick : It would fall within our authority regardless of the fact that they were overseas based or not from the fact that they were on board a VH registered aircraft in Australia—

Senator XENOPHON: If it is not VH registered, if it is an aircraft which is minority Australian-owned, would that make any difference? If it is not VH registered, do you have any jurisdiction?

Mr McCormick : Generally speaking, as I think we have discussed before, if the country of registration is a signatory to the ICAO convention then we accept that they are adopting the ICAO convention requirements of the annexe 6, for instance, in the case of the operations you speak of. However, we conduct our own surveillance of those operations, if necessary. Of course, our concern is the safety issues.

Senator XENOPHON: Finally, is there an agreement between the minority shareholder as to the way the airline would operate? In other words, the majority shareholder has certain standards and it is an Australian company, would that bring it within your jurisdiction?

Mr McCormick : Commercial arrangements will not fall in our jurisdiction unless there is a question of financial viability. As far as the operation of the crew goes, if they are operating under the air operator certificate that we issue, whether it is Australian or a foreign aircraft air operator’s certificate then they naturally do fall under our jurisdiction.

CHAIR: I thank you and the officers of CASA very much. I call officers of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau to the table.